Defiant Muslim rebels launch new offensive in southern Philippines
Death toll rises to 14 on fourth day of fighting as allegation of captives being raped is investigated
Philippine forces were fighting Muslim rebels on two fronts yesterday as clashes broke out near a southern city being besieged by guerrillas opposed to peace talks with the government, officials said.
Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) gunmen attacked army positions on Basilan island, wounding at least three soldiers, the military said. Basilan is across a narrow strip of sea from Zamboanga, a major port city where about 180 MNLF fighters had been locked in sporadic clashes with troops since Monday, displacing about 13,000 residents.
"We would like to believe this is just part of their diversionary tactics," regional military spokesman Colonel Rodrigo Gregorio said of the Basilan attacks.
He said two other guerrilla groups with links to the MNLF were also involved in the fighting in Basilan, a jungle-covered island that is a traditional stronghold of the militants.
On the fourth day of the MNLF siege of Zamboanga yesterday, rebels fired mortars and snipers targeted government troops as they advanced on militant positions.
The gunmen are followers of Nur Misuari, who founded the MNLF, which launched a long separatist rebellion in 1971. He made a renewed declaration of "independence" a month ago after alleging the government was violating the terms of a 1996 peace deal that created a Muslim self-rule area in the south by negotiating a separate peace deal with a rival faction, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The militants are hiding out among between 80 and 180 "human shields" in several neighbourhoods on the city's outskirts, officials said.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said yesterday that officials were trying to verify allegations that the gunmen had raped some of the women.
The alleged rapes were reported by a resident who escaped from the gunmen, she added.
Gregorio said hundreds of elite soldiers backed by police had restricted the rebels' movement, but the presence of civilians was preventing any effort to end the siege by force. Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala added: "We cannot just conduct offensive actions without taking account of the hostages."
Apart from the three soldiers wounded in Basilan, one soldier was killed in a firefight with the rebels on Wednesday, when a villager who was mistaken for a guerrilla was fatally shot by the security forces, Gregorio said.
The killing raised the death toll during the standoff to 14, including three civilians, one police officer, two soldiers and eight rebels in four days of fighting.
Zamboanga Mayor Maria Isabelle Climaco Salazar said she had finally managed to reach Misuari by telephone, and asked him to call off the siege. She said Misuari told her he had given his followers on the ground "a free hand" in deciding their fate.